Businesses should take this opportunity to create a new normal for employees

Posted May 12, 2020

By Marya Doerfel

The global disruption of “normal” caused by COVID-19 may reveal things that should change and must change - like making workdays shorter, workloads lighter and ending disproportional executive pay, Rutgers' Marya Doerfel says.

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Telecommuting from home appears to be a straightforward way to adapt to the COVID-19 quarantines while largely staying the course. Or is it?

Resilience is about staying the course. People are resilient, in part, because they continue to work. Businesses are resilient because employees continue to do their jobs despite chaos and uncertainty. In a way, responsibilities “pull workers through” crises. Businesses and nonprofits are resilient because workers “push the organizations through” disruption. When organizations continue to be productive, they feed into community resilience. Those who work fuel our society enabling communities to get through this together.

Yet this pressure to continue working can be emotionally and physically exhausting. This global crisis is generating stress from social isolation and heightened uncertainty. Challenges are especially poignant for families with small children, for people at high risk, for those whose family members need extra care, for people who lack technology in their homes, and for people who are simply freaked out.

Being resilient can be a form of denial about the surrounding circumstances and can reveal advantages some people have that end up belittling those who are more vulnerable.

There are hidden costs of being resilient for individuals, businesses, and communities. Resilient leaders keep working, but they can appear clueless about the difficulties their employees face. Resilient organizations and businesses can actually amplify some of their employees’ vulnerabilities by celebrating the resilient employees who plow through, perform, and produce.

For example, despite the evolving roles of men at home, women still do the preponderance of household and childcare duties. With schools closed, these gender differences will likely continue, if not increase, because kids are now learning at home. Subsequently, if performance reviews do not acknowledge these differences, an unanticipated consequence of COVID-19 is a further widening of the pay gap.

Being resilient can be anathema to change. The global disruption of “normal” caused by COVID-19 may reveal things that should change and must change. A great place to start is the pressure on the American workweek: almost 50% of salaried workers work 50 or more hours per week. Consider how time and pressure to be productive generate stress during normal times. Now, people are also trying to keep up with the news, the physical and emotional health of their friends, family and coworkers, and their own well-being.

The COVID-19 disruption to resilient businesses is an opportunity to make real systemic change. In the long run, transforming today will better position businesses to succeed after this crisis is over. Transformation can start with these actions:

  • Reduce the workday. This policy change doesn’t stigmatize those who cannot keep pace and encourages retention rather than layoffs. It also recognizes the resiliency that employees and employers foster despite heightened stress and uncertainty.
  • Adopt a new workload policy. It would be an acknowledgment that productivity is going to be lower but will not hurt career progression.
  • Leaders, take advice from workers about their vision for prioritizing tasks. Allow employees the freedom to be resourceful and improvisational. Granted, expecting employees to give genuine feedback only works when leadership has demonstrated support and confidence in employees and their ability to make decisions. If the workplace is not supportive, there is nothing like a shared calamity to bring people together to start anew. Approach these new circumstances with humility and genuine concern for employees and coworkers.
  • Narrow the wage gap. Perpetuated by myths of individualism, it continues to be disproportionately in favor of executives by nearly 300:1. Executives should follow the lead of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson who won’t draw a salary for the rest of the year. Times like these show off how great businesses are pushed through by their most vital resource: the collective intellectual and physical labor of their employees.

The new coronavirus will test employee, business, and community resilience. Great leaders will use this pandemic to create real systemic change. After all, resilience isn’t only about getting through today, it is about prosperity for the future.

Marya Doerfel is a professor of communication, director of the NetSCI Research Lab at Rutgers University and co-editor of Organizing Inclusion. She conducts research on organizational resilience after disasters.

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